Recent openings expand Hernando’s menu of eateries

Published February 26 2018

Eat, eat, eat. And eat once more.

Four chain restaurants have staked claims here recently, bolstering Hernando County’s designation as a "dining destination," said Tammy Heon, coordinator of the county’s Tourism Development Bureau. The designation, revealed in a Hernando rebranding study a few years ago, surprised even her.

"One of the biggest questions we get is ‘where should we have lunch’ or ‘where shall we have dinner?’" Heon said.

Newly added to the bureau’s list of more than 200 area eateries are: First Watch, an early-open breakfast place; Tijuana Flats, a kitschy Tex-Mex, family-oriented, choose-your-heat spot; and Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, an upscale-for-here casual dining house. All anchor Cortez West, a plaza still building out in the 12000 block.

Close to Brooksville’s downtown has come Huddle House, heavy on traditional home cooking and offering "any meal, any time."

Spokesmen for each of the restaurants say they’re attracting customers of all ages, but most acknowledged that retirees predominate. In fact, the largest group of the county’s population, 29 percent, is 65 years or older.

At First Watch, "retirees do very well for us," said Eleni Kouvatsos of the Sarasota-based firm with 310 outlets in 17 states. "The traditional two-egg and pancake breakfast is selling more than anything else." Yet, elders are choosing healthy as well, she noted, not shying from "super seed" protein pancakes, egg white burritos, chicken sausage and gluten-free toast.

The local unit is one of 13 First Watch restaurants test-marketing health-centric menu items, among them kale tonic, berry-laden brioche toast and an acai bowl.

First Watch has proven successful near medical facilities, Kouvatsos said, pointing out the local proximity of hospital, physical rehab facility, hospice and physicians’ offices.

A few steps away, at "fast casual" Tijuana Flats, the menu, music and atmosphere heat up a notch. Working-agers swell the lunch crowd while elders opt for early dinners, and families roll in from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., said managing partner Cory Grady. "We’re definitely family-oriented," she said, adding, "For lunch, we have a lot of to-goes."

A central 15-pump hot sauce island beckons diners after they place their orders. Whether on tacos, burritos or enchiladas, customers choose their own heat, from sweet to "bee sting."

"Anything fried," sells, Grady said, with chimichangas topping the list. "Power Lite" options also are available, with low-fat sour cream and mozzarella in place of cheddar.

The restaurant focuses on "guest service" rather than customer service, Grady said. "We want you to come in as guests in our house, make a connection, get to know you by name, rather than that you’re a dollar sign."

Right off the plaza’s main entrance, a step into Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen lobby suggests upper-scale with its reduced lighting, faux greenery, gray-hued décor and cocktail lounge with high-top seating.

Yet Cheddar’s, based in Texas with 150 outlets in 27 states, advertises "20 entrees under $10." The chain ranked No. 3 for customer satisfaction, overall value and financial performance in a recent rating by Business Insider.

Every dish on Cheddar’s self-described "iconic" menu is made from scratch. As an example, for the locally popular chicken pot pie, "we start with a roux and make totally in-house, bake to order," said general manager John Seebach, a 15-year veteran of the chain. "Monte Cristos and croissants, the same."

"Retirees are here, definitely," Seebach said. At the end of the restaurant’s first two weeks, he added, "We’re definitely getting some regulars. We’ve one couple that comes every other day."

Among the new restaurants, Cheddar’s is the largest, seating 255.

Near South Plaza in Brooksville, Huddle House is an American diner chain known for its cover-the-lot breakfast menu. Its March 3 grand opening will feature 25-cent waffles all day. The menu runs to sandwich and dinner platters, as well.

"We’ve stuck to quality home-style, the ideal small-town atmosphere," said franchise owner Mike Lakhandwala. Resurgence of the brand, he said, played into his decision to add Brooksville to his Crystal River and Inverness franchises.

"Family is the attraction — adults over the age of 40," he said.

To attract teens, local manager Scott Kenny decorated a cozy corner of the 86-seat eatery, a former Pizza Hut, with athletic shirts and photos of Hernando High School.

While still in its soft opening phase, Lakhandwala said eventually Huddle House will be open 24 hours a day.

Contact Beth Gray at [email protected]